Friday, February 19, 2010

There's an article in today's Wall Street Journal about the possible sale of Abbey Road and potentially being turned into a museum rather than remain an active studio. Interesting discussion of how much a great room can play in a great recording (the long gone 30th Street studio. Also mentioned are Sun, Capitol, Motown, and The Record Plant. To which list you could certainly add Ardent. Worth reading (not sure if you'll be able to read this online if you're not a subscriber so you may have to go to a newsstand). By the way, Ardent co-founder and subsequent founder of Federal Express Frederick Smith had an op-ed piece in the WSJ recently about how to get the economy going again. Made total sense but I'm sure those in power in DC would never dream of consulting someone with a proven track record of growing business and creating jobs.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

SUPERFLY MEETS SHAFT AT Hobart and William Smith, 1974

Okay, here's something that has nothing to do with Big Star (although I can imagine Alex Chilton gleefully taking part in this tale back when it occurred). Recently I was doing some research on music blogs and the bounty of music offered for free download (some of it obscure and out of print, some of it in obvious violation of copyright) and came across a site that posts obscure 45s. One of them was "Shaft Meets Superfly" by John and Ernest, one of those "drop in" novelty records that were popular in the 60s and still around in the early 70s. Far from obscure in my mind, it was probably one of the last 45s that meant anything to me. Here's the story...

In April of 1974 I was a senior at Hobart College in Geneva NY. I had become friends with Bob Meserve and spent a lot of time hanging out in the dorm lounge we shared listening to his collection of black and orange spined Impulse albums and Captain Beefheart. One night he came back from the campus pub (a dingy concrete bunker in basement of the administration building that served Pabst on tap for cheap) raving about a new 45 he and some friends (Paul Keating...and likely Dan Knickerbocker and / or John Johnson) had discovered on the jukebox: Superfly Meets Shaft Part Two. I went with him the next night to hear this masterpiece - indescribable at the time but in retrospect it sounds like Lee Perry gone berserk scratching a Curtis Mayfield record in the Holland Tunnel. Pure noise or a masterpiece. You could call it either way but we kept putting the quarters in the jukebox and playing it on endless repeat. After a while it took on a hypnotic effect, the sound just bouncing off the concrete in the dimly lit room. If we'd been in NYC, you could have put a velvet rope outside and charged $20 to get in.

This went on for a few nights until the student bartender (a frat jock lacking in humor and / or musical taste as I recall) pulled the plug on the jukebox and told us to get lost. The next night we returned to find that Freddie Hart had replaced John and Ernest on the jukebox. A letter was drafted in protest to The Herald (campus newspaper) that was signed by Paul (although I'm pretty certain that Bob Merserve was a co-author - he kept so far off the radar that when he would show up for a class final exam, it was common for a professor to have no idea who he was) comparing the removal of Superfly Meets Shaft to the antagonistic reception given the Rites of Spring. Here's the track and the letter (you can scroll down for the A side):

Thanks to Zack Chaikin (for the scan of the letter) and Juke Box Mafia (for posting Part 2 on request).

Postscript. Paul Keating was tragically killed on the streets of NY in the early 80s trying to stop a hold-up. Bob Meserve and I kept in touch for many years. He somehow had procured a copy of the record and gave it to me to make a copy. When he became a father I sent it back to him – an heirloom that could be passed along to his son. I last saw him at a Pharoah Sanders concert I produced in the mid-90s.

Postscript Two. I was just reminded that a band I played in circa 76-77 (The Blue Reimondos - first CBGBs type band in Buffalo area although we were up and running before those bands recorded and we got to hear them) actually COVERED this, right down to the drop out near the end of the recording that tricks you into thinking that it's over and then...BAM! We didn't / couldn't do it note for note but had a lot of fun trying to recreate it in spirit right down to the excessive reverb.

The Ardent Facebook page recently posted a note about a new Memphis band – The Bulletproof Vests – with an new album – Attack! – mixed by Ardent engineer Adam Hill. I got to know Adam a bit while writing the book – he's the Ardent archivist as well as wearing his engineer hat – and was eager to hear his work. I started surfing around to find sites where I could sample it. iTunes and CD Baby had mp3s for close to $10 for the album. Bandcamp (link above) had the entire album available in lossless format for $5. Sold. Now that's what I've been talking about for years. You want to sell albums in today's environment? Sell them cheap. Make them available in a lossless format (along with mp3s for those who like the feel of pencils jabbing in their eardrums. I will take a chance on a record for $5. Not for $10. And no way for $15. I have to have heard it and really want it. Unfortunately (for the recording industry) the new albums I'm willing to spend that much on have dwindled to close to zero. And I've bought just about everything I want in back catalog (and refuse to buy it again for a third time). But $5? That's reasonable. And getting back to Bulletproof Vests...I'm glad I did.

The band can really play (sadly, this can't be said of most bands today), the songs are top notch (you'll hear some nods to Big Star and influences with an abiding love of the MGS throughout), and there's that elusive blend of variety and unity on that's the hallmark of a really good album. The album wasn't mixed at Ardent but Adam has whipped up a great sounding record in the Ardent / John Fry tradition. (Of course, that all begins with how well the band recorded themselves to begin with. As John Fry noted in the book, a lot of records don't sound good because the musicians aren't making good sounds do to begin with.) If you dig the Memphis sound and all that means, this is a highly recommended addition to your play pile.

Here's how the band describes themselves:
"The album, performed and captured by the band themselves in their own Memphis studio, was mixed with a magic wand and a potato battery by Ardent Studios engineer, Adam Hill, who has been involved with Big Star, Jack White, The Green Brothers, The 145’s, & Jim Dickinson. Inside this smorgasbord of sound sits a rollicking exploration of tone and genre that is part psyched out backwards fuzz freak-out, part sweet country slow drippin' ear molasses, and part subterranean buzzsaw scream served with a helping of the heart stopping Memphis sound, filled with Big Star’s, Moloch’s, Reigning Sound's, Oblivians', Guilloteens' and MGs."

Friday, February 5, 2010

A trip to Memphis is on the must-do list of every music fan. This article in the New York Times gives some good tips on where to go once you go to the must-see spots (Graceland, Sun, Stax, Civil Rights Museum etc.). In my visits to Memphis I haven't had the time to go much beyond the obvious but I'll have this article with me the next time I go back.

The last time I was in Memphis (finishing some research on the book) my son and I were walking through the lobby of the Peabody Hotel on a late Sunday afternoon. Who should we bump into but none other than Robert Plant...just standing there casually talking to a few people. No entourage. Dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt. Very unassuming. Needless to say, we were sort of excited. My teenage son is a huge Zeppelin fan (at the time, When The Levee Breaks was his ringtone) and wanted an autograph. I told him to be polite and if Plant acted like he didn't want to be interrupted, to just back off and scram. He approached Plant with a pen and a postcard of Graceland and said "Excuse me Mr. Plant. I'm a huge fan. Could I please have your autograph?" Plant was more than cordial and asked my son for his name.
Plant: "Well Alex, what are you doing in Memphis?"
"My dad and I are checking out some old music stuff."
Plant: "Well, just checked out some old music stuff..."

Great exchange and it was cool how nice he was to the kid.

The next day Alex and I are in Studio B at Ardent with Jody Stephens. I'm taking the photo of Jody you see in the book. Alex is sitting on one of the Smashing Pumpkins' road cases. Jody's phone rings and it's Robert Plant's assistant. Plant had planned on swinging by Ardent that evening to say hello but was tired from a long day in the 100-degree heat going to Graceland and a few other music spots. Checking out the old music stuff. He had finished his tour with Alison Krauss on Saturday night, gone to to the tour party, and then gotten up Sunday and driven to Memphis to "check out some old music stuff." Places he's probably been to many times The next day he was driving down to Clarksdale to soak up more of the old music stuff.

We thought it was really cool that one of the biggest rock stars ever finishes a tour and instead of heading home with his money decides to spend some time soaking up some inspiration and vibes at the source. Not surprising then that he turned down 100 million for the Zep reunion tour with the explanation that he already had enough money, but only had some many years left to explore new musical directions. I understand that Plant has another album going with Krauss but I'm hoping he returns to working with Strange Sensation. I saw them on their last tour a few years back and they were strikingly fresh and creative. I enjoyed them as much as any band I've seen this century.